A Natural Step Ahead

A Natural Step Ahead Cover

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Starting in 2018–2019, ’Wick’s vast, new Vermont Campus will provide an abundance of natural resources and essential ‘away’ space in which students must switch off and disconnect to grasp and explore the benefits of both aloneness and direct, personal interaction — applying their classroom learning in the field, and deepening as never before their relationships to themselves, the world, and each other.

IN GREENWICH, it’s an experience money can’t buy. And, in the building and strengthening of young people’s character, the nation’s top neuroscientists, psychologists, and expert educators have all come to agree: It’s absolutely essential. Seniors Sean Amill and Hayden Hoover reached the same conclusions after participating in the second of two pilot Brunswick “away” immersion programs conducted during the past two years. The experiences were geared to testing optimal approaches to extending and enhancing, in response to the unprecedented demands of living and prospering in the 21st century, Brunswick’s unwavering core commitment to building students’ character in pursuit of Courage, Honor, and Truth. Along with two faculty members and 12 fellow Brunswick Upper School juniors, Sean and Hayden ventured to remote Upstate New York — deliberately retreating to “unplug” themselves from the technological devices, packed schedules, and the dauntingly ambitious landscape of commitments that now characterize aspiring students’ lives in Greenwich and beyond.

The result: “One of the most influential and moving experiences of my life,” according to Sean, now a varsity football captain and Senior Prefect who’s also heavily involved with Middle and Lower Schoolers as part of Brunswick’s Big Brother Program. “Through my 14 years at Brunswick, this trip will stand out as the most important and worthwhile experience I’ve had. “The remote location gave us an opportunity to get to know our peers on a more intimate level, and also gave us a chance to focus on evaluating our own character. I’ve become much more aware of the person I am — and the person I want to be.”

THE REASONS BEHIND the impact of the experience: “We only thought about the present, and fully invested ourselves in the activities we did,” said Hayden, now a varsity tennis captain and president of ’Wick’s Class of 2018. “The most influential part of the trip was the ‘no cell phone’ policy. I’d never realized how much time I spend on my phone, and the importance of the little social interactions I miss because of it.”

Both Sean and Hayden have gained new strength in cultivating friendships and inspiring as leaders, they said. “The trip changed me by showing me the influence of human connections,” Hayden said. “I learned that a leader needs not only to be assertive, but should also deliver a sense of unity and equality among his peers.” The duo speaks sotto voce on a pivotal point: “The experience could not have been possible if it were to happen in Greenwich,” they both said, agreeing that the pressure and rigor of daily schedules just don’t allow the time or space. They also noted that the “away” experience had an added and unexpected bonus: It created and cemented relationships among the entire group of participants, many of whom had previously been more distant friends. “I feel a much stronger bond with all of the guys,” Hayden observed. “And I’ve continued to hang out and talk with them significantly more than before.”

WORD SPREAD LIKE WILDFIRE. Overwhelming success of the two-year pilot experiment, along with a tremendous surge of student and family interest in future trips, prompted Headmaster Tom Philip and Brunswick’s Board of Trustees to turn up the flame on serious exploration of creating and making space for a permanent and turnkey ’Wick “away” program — one that could come to bear as positively on the lives of every student, not just a select few. Philip appointed Upper School Science Teacher Daniel Dychkowski, leader of the two pilot initiatives, to oversee research into the full spectrum of possibilities for a model program — one that might include and extend the “away” experience to encompass classroom learning “in the field” and community service as well.

And, as rave reviews and excitement spread throughout the extended Brunswick community, alumnus Jesse F. “Sam” Sammis III ’56, chairman of Greenwich’s New England Land Company, approached the School with the idea of establishing a permanent home for the program at the vast Green Mountain Stock Farm and surrounding hills and woodlands, in Randolph, Vt. FOR DYCHKOWSKI — who has led trips to Africa, Europe, Central and South America, and across the United States during his 13-year teaching career — the value of experiential education is almost unquantifiable.

And, as part of that work, Dychkowski initially sensed the essential value of deliberate disconnection in encouraging students to manage their “technology time” when he and his wife, Maggie, returned to the U.S. after a teaching assignment in Bogotá, Colombia, and came to Brunswick, in 2012. “When I left for Colombia, I had a basic phone and a pay-as-you-go plan — $10 a month,” Dychkowski recalled. “When we got back, everybody had an iPhone. It happened that fast! My friends were getting annoyed at me because I couldn’t be part of a group message. How friends, family, and colleagues interacted all the time had completely changed.”

Today, the 38-year-old environmental scientist and father of two boys sees the effects of that change on human relationships in every quarter. “For students in my classroom, this is just the way life is,” he said. “For them, it’s never been any different: They have less experience in relating directly to real people, because they spend a lot less time at it. So, now, we have to make space and time to teach important life skills they would have gained simply by waking up and living 10 years ago.” At home, he and his wife make conscious efforts to distance themselves from their phones. “We bought an alarm clock,” he said. “We make a concerted effort to leave our phones in one place.” Why? He hesitated for a moment: “We want to be more present in the lives of our kids,” he said. “Sounds kind of pompous — but I honestly can’t think of a better way to say it.” That sense of absolute “presence” lies at the heart of experiential learning.

“It’s personal and reflective in nature,” he said. “It influences both feelings and emotions as well as enhancing knowledge and skills. “Students gain the capacity for critical thinking and learn to apply newfound knowledge in complex or ambiguous situations — and they gain a far deeper understanding of subject matter than they can through classroom study alone.”

As a teacher, Dychkowski has seen the results firsthand, not only during the two pilot “away” trips, but also during summer travels to Tanzania in 2014 and 2016 with Brunswick students: Those groups ventured to Africa to work in an orphanage and climb Mount Kilimanjaro — and travelers had to improvise and adapt in response to vastly different circumstances. “Boys that have skill sets that may not be utilized or appreciated at ’Wick found confidence and undiscovered abilities,” Dychkowski observed. “It’s what happens: They let their guard down and are less worried about their clothing or appearance and the judgments of their peers. They become receptive to new ideas and emotional growth. The stresses of home, sports, and school are removed.” And the effects of stripping away technology are immeasurable.

“Ironically, the boys feel liberated without their phones always an arm’s length away,” Dychkowski said. “They have an easier time focusing and are immediately more creative. “Relationships among them begin to form organically — and meaningful conversations and interactions lead to stronger friendships. As they break free of technology, they also break free from the misconceptions they may have had about their peers. It’s incredible to watch,” he said, breaking into an easy smile.

When, in May, the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to proceed with acquisition of the Green Mountain Stock Farm — a purchase underwritten entirely by the exceptional generosity of two anonymous donors — Headmaster Philip asked Dychkowski to direct and lead development of the entire initiative, with a goal of opening the doors in September 2018. His new assignment in developing a program is one of near-term challenge and long-term reward, Dychkowski said. “The temptation is to prove the value or effectiveness of the program by burying students in structure and the minute-to minute of every day — and by explaining how busy the boys will be,” he said. “But that’s not the point. Ultimately, this is about shaping young men who’ll be better dads, life partners, colleagues, friends, and lifelong learners — young men who are more compassionate, curious, and empathic. “The unstructured elements are very likely to prove to be the most meaningful.”

ON THE HOME FRONT IN GREENWICH, Tucker Hastings, in his new position as Dean of Student Life, is collaborating closely with Dychkowski to ensure the strongest possible connection between students’ “on campus” and “away” experiences. He sees the new Vermont Campus as a land of near-boundless opportunity. Beyond everyday academic, athletic, artistic, and social experiences — the immediate programmatic components of “status-quo” student life — Hastings believes time spent in Vermont will enhance all aspects of a Brunswick education. “The program will lend itself to so much of what’s important in 21st-century education,” Hastings said. “Collaboration, teamwork, inquiry-based learning, and experiential education will all come to the forefront.”

And, in Hastings’ mind, it won’t all be just for the benefit of students. “There will be so many possibilities for anyone who has an interest — teachers, coaches, class deans — to take advantage of the resources available to them. “I’m generally excited to see everything take shape — and personally hope to get to Vermont as much as I can to see it unfold.” Additionally, as colleges and universities are themselves increasing focus on experiential education, the Vermont Campus Program will have a powerful and positive impact on Brunswick boys’ college profiles.

Director of College Counseling Doug Burdett couldn’t be more excited to add this new element of Brunswick life to a boy’s list of transformative experiences. “Students will gain life skills and social strengths directly applicable to success and satisfaction in their college experience,” Burdett said. “And given the increased concentration on experiential learning initiatives among colleges and universities, our boys will be well prepared to participate and succeed in these environments after they leave Brunswick. “It’s a win-win.”